I’m guessing that, as you read the title of this post, every single one of you did a mental double-take. “No,” your brain surely rebelled (perhaps even with a shudder). “That word order is not right. It should be ‘big brown’ cow, not the other way around.”
But why? Why is one wrong, the other right? And why is the “wrong” one so exceedingly disturbing to our ears?
I saw a meme on social media recently about adjective order in the English language, which made the grammar nerd in me stop scrolling to ponder this issue. The meme asserted that, in English, the order must be as follows: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose, and then the noun. The rule seems to be, essentially, that you move from the most general to the most specific adjective.
So it’s a beautiful, big, old, tall, rust-red, Californian, steel, suspension bridge. Any other order would sound strange to us.
But native English speakers don’t memorize this adjective order. (Many likely wouldn’t even know what an adjective was, if asked.) We simply learn this rule as we grow up, and any other way of speaking seems unnatural to our ears.
I therefore present you with a glorious, big, round(ish), French rain-umbrella:
And a funky, antique, badly-painted, steel touring-bike:
And a pair of quirky, newish, pointy, colorful, jute shoes:
Which raises a question: Are there instances where writers bend or manipulate this rule on purpose, to mess with our minds or to simply have fun with language? I can’t think of any, but do post them below, if you know of any examples.
And just how much can you bend the rule without causing readers to stop and shake their heads, or worse yet, write you a letter correcting your mistake?
Okay, so now it’s time for a fun little group activity (see what I did there?). Without consulting either the adjective-order set forth above, or other people’s comments, describe the following object, using all the terms I’ve listed below. The trick is to see if everyone comes up with the same order, more or less, based solely on our instincts and fluency in the English language.
ceramic, Italian, cup, dainty, espresso, round, lovely, white, new
I so adore language!